Some 255 prisoners are held without charge in Guantanamo Bay detention centre. Barack Obama's commitment to close the facility is one of the most important, symbolic elements of his agenda as president-elect. It represents the rejection of a disreputable element of US foreign policy. Asked by Time magazine about criteria by which he would measure his success in office, Mr Obama said: "On foreign policy, have we closed Guantanamo in a responsible way, put a clear end to torture and restored a balance between the demands of our security and our constitution?"
Guantanamo has become shorthand for giving the rule of law short shrift and riding roughshod over the Geneva Convention. It has also become associated with practices incompatible with civilised values. Its very location was a means of circumventing protections afforded by the US constitution. And the use of torture – the only honest description of the simulated drowning known as waterboarding – to extract testimony from prisoners would unquestionably be condemned by the US were it practised in other countries. Closing Guantanamo would represent a commitment to the rule of law.
It should also be a signal that the "war on terror" is not an end that justifies any means. As Rupert Cornwell reports today, there are already some worrying indications that President Bush may pardon those within the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the White House who authorised coercive interrogation in Guantanamo, and those who used it. That would be an indication that individuals are not responsible for their actions. It would also undermine US attempts to buttress the principle of accountability elsewhere in the world, not least in war crimes tribunals.
Barack Obama has raised almost impossible hopes, and one of them has been for a new kind of world order in which the rule of law will hold, in which there is some congruence between US rhetoric and US actions, in which America can be an exemplar of respect for the rights of individuals. Closing Guantanamo is just the start of that wider endeavour, and it should have Britain's wholehearted support.
This country's tacit acceptance of "extraordinary rendition" by the US was a sin of omission at the very least. The lack of curiosity shown by senior ministers about the provenance of much US intelligence will surely return to haunt them.
What to do then with the Guantanamo prisoners is a relatively small question, though one that could have been designed to stoke popular resentment at the prospect of Britain taking any of them. Some detainees cannot be returned home either because of reluctance on the part of those countries to have them, or because of fears that they could be tortured on their return.
The British Government is reported to be in negotiations about the possibility of taking some of them here. Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general who negotiated the return of British detainees, has said that Britain should accept some of the prisoners if that would help to close the facility. It would be, he said, in the country's self-interest because Guantanamo was damaging Britain, having become "a recruiting agent for terrorism".
It has indeed, and we should never say never. But this is not of itself an argument for this country to take on detainees who have no connection with this country. This is a problem made in America, and America must deal with its consequences.
Britain, given its solidarity with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, has no need to curry favour with Barack Obama. His election delighted Britain; he knows as much. Unlike some of America's European allies – Germany, to name just one – Britain has put its troops in harm's way as part of the US-led alliance in the region. In the overall scheme of things, the US needs Britain, not least for Mr Obama's forthcoming surge in Afghanistan.
In any event, what needs to be questioned seriously is just why it is unsafe for detainees to be returned to their own countries. Do we have to accept as a fact of life in this new world order that prisoners are routinely tortured in detention? Yemen has accepted Osama bin Laden's driver, to serve his sentence at home.
The US does have considerable political and economic clout in the region, and under the new administration it will have more. It could use that influence to ensure that prisoners returned to their home countries will not be abused in detention or on release. Otherwise, it should provide ex-detainees with a home, protection and an identity for themselves and their families in the US; that is the minimum price America must pay for Guantanamo.